Having both a special ticket price offer, and severe opera withdrawal symptoms, I found myself at the Met again last night, for the season's first Rigoletto, with Lado Ataneli, Christine Schäfer, and Francesco Meli in Otto Schenk's production (the fullest spread of photographs, from the '05-'06 season, may be found here.) Rumor has it that the next outing will be a new production, and soon, news which I must confess to greeting with some sense of relief after last night. Now, I'm deeply attached to Schenk's venerable Ring, but his Rigoletto never convinced me that it was anything more than merely monumental, a massive, static backdrop for the singers. The blocking was fairly static too; the worst moment was probably when Rigoletto was pleading "scorrer fa il pianto sul mio cor" from halfway across the stage. Renaissance architecture and costumes were indeed very beautiful, and the backdrop of gradual dawn over the Italian countryside in Act II looked as lovely as gradual dawn over the Italian countryside; but I'm afraid I must damn poor Otto Schenk with faint praise in this instance. Oh! and as long as we're being traditional, couldn't we have a door that isn't invisible at the top of a giant staircase for when our hunchback is frenziedly yelling "Ah! la porta! assassini!"?
The conducting, by Paolo Arrivabeni, I found seriously disappointing. There were issues with balance and pacing, and a lack of ominousness, sad to relate. Francesco Meli, as the Duke of Mantua, never sounded other than strained at the top of his range, and never mustered much fullness of sound despite having a rather nice tone. It was announced before the beginning of Act III that he was suffering from a cold, but would finish the performance. The variables of indisposition and Met-debut nerves could account for much, so I can hope that he might muster more charisma in full health. YouTube user coloraturafan has him singing Ella mi fu rapita with much greater ease, but I still suspect I might find his tone and lyric style more convincing in a lighter and more sympathetic role than as the decidedly dangerous duke.
Lado Ataneli raised the level of vocal excellence and dramatic tension from his entrance. Limping on in a traditional shamble, he grinned and grimaced and made the Mantovan court seem actually dysfunctional, and opened his mouth and produced Verdi baritone sound... and I breathed easier. His singing was solid, mellifluous and full, both powerful and expressive throughout his range. And his acting-through-the-voice was great: "Quel vecchio maledivami!" was momentous, and I cried during every single duet with Gilda. I couldn't say that his performance was anything less than very, very good; if it lacked anything it was only, perhaps, the extra, unbalanced edge to a performance that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.
I was excited for Christine Schäfer's Gilda ever since encountering this video on Se Vuoi Pace, and she was no disappointment. At least from the Family Circle, I did not get the erotic intensity of her interpretation for McVicar, but there was emotional commitment without a shade of simpering. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera has written on her blog about opera as sport; and I do find there to be something simply, viscerally exciting about hearing a human voice reach out over an orchestra and sing about love or revenge or doubt or certainty. Schäfer's voice, pure, sweet, and strong, was a pleasure throughout. Maddalena and Sparafucile were both Met débutantes. Nino Surguladze had an earthy warmth to her voice and a self-delighted freedom of movement which made much of her role; Andrea Silvestrelli had an impressive low F, but was a bit gravelly. Not an earth-shattering evening, perhaps, but one certainly elevated by the technique and artistry of Rigoletto and Gilda. A nice note is that the applause at the end of the night seemed more judicious than usual, with lavish bravos (though no standing) for Ataneli and Schäfer, and a markedly lukewarm reception for Arrivabeni. Is this the effect of the prima? Mysterious to me, but I'm not complaining.